In the NICU - How does CPAP differ from a ventilator?

November 22, 2021

Babies who are born preterm (before 37 weeks) may have trouble breathing and need extra help to breathe well. Some babies are put on CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) to help them breathe and others are on a ventilator. So, what exactly is the difference?

CPAP delivers air to a baby’s lungs either through small tubes in the baby’s nose or through a tube that has been inserted into the windpipe. The tubes are attached to a machine, which helps the baby breathe. Babies on CPAP breathe on their own, the machine does not breathe for them. The steady flow of air with oxygen coming in through the tubes keeps enough pressure in the lungs to prevent the air sacs from collapsing after each breath.  It’s a little extra support to help the lungs do their job.

A mechanical ventilator is a breathing machine that delivers warmed and humidified air to a baby’s lungs. The smallest or sickest babies receive mechanical ventilation, meaning that the mechanical ventilator temporarily breathes for them while their lungs recover or mature enough to breathe on their own. The air is delivered to the baby’s lungs through an endotracheal tube. This is a small plastic tube that’s inserted through a baby’s nose or mouth, down into the windpipe. The amount of oxygen, air pressure and number of breaths per minute, can be controlled to meet each baby’s needs.  The breathing is all done by the ventilator, not by the baby. After the lungs are strong enough the baby may move on to CPAP, on the way to breathing on their own.

This experience can be scary and overwhelming for families. If you, or someone you know, had a preterm birth and a baby in the NICU who’s on CPAP or a ventilator, visit  This is March of Dimes’ online community for families. Here you can connect, share and find support from parents who may have a baby in the NICU, or are going through similar experiences with their babies.